God, Names of

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Editors: Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik
Date: 2007
Encyclopaedia Judaica
From: Encyclopaedia Judaica(Vol. 7. 2nd ed.)
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 7
Content Level: (Level 3)
Lexile Measure: 950L

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Various Hebrew terms are used for God in the Bible. Some of these are employed in both the generic and specific sense; others are used only as the personal name of the God of Israel. Most of these terms were employed also by the Canaanites, to designate their gods. This is not surprising, since the early Israelites arose in Canaan and spoke "the language of Canaan" (Isa. 19:18). It must be noted, however, that in the Bible these various terms, when used by the Israelites to designate their own deity, refer to one and the same god, the God of Israel. When Joshua told the tribes of Israel, assembled at Shechem, that their ancestors had "served other gods" (Josh. 24:2), he was referring to the ancestors of Abraham, as is clear from the context. The God who identified Himself to Moses as YHWH said He was "the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob" (Ex. 3:6). Therefore, the terms "the Fear of Isaac" (perhaps rather, "the Kinsman of Isaac," Gen. 31:42, 53) and "the Mighty One of Jacob" (Gen. 49:24; Isa. 49:26), are synonymous with YHWH.


The oldest Semitic term for God is ʾel (corresponding to Akkadian ilu (m), Canaanite ʾel or ʾil, and Arabic ʾel as an element in personal names). The etymology of the word is obscure. It is commonly thought that the term derived from a root ʾyl or ʾwl, meaning "to be powerful" (cf. yesh le-el yadi, "It is in the power of my hand," Gen. 31:29; cf. Deut. 28:32; Micah 2:1). But the converse may be true; since power is an essential element in the concept of deity, the term for deity may have been used in the transferred sense of "power."

In Akkadian, ilu (m), and plural ilū and ilānu, is used in reference to any individual god as well as to divine beings in general; but it is not employed as the personal name of any god. In Ugaritic Canaanite, however, il occurs much more frequently as the personal name of the highest god el than as the common noun "god" (pl., ilm; fem., ilt). In the Ugaritic myths El is the head of the Canaanite pantheon, the ancestor of the other gods and goddesses, and the creator of the earth and its creatures; but he generally fades into the background and plays a minor role in the preserved myths.

In the Bible ʾel is seldom used as the personal name of God, e.g., ʾEl-ʾElohei-Yisrael, "El, the God of [the Patriarch] Israel" (Gen. 33:20; cf. Ps. 146:5). Almost always, ʾel is an appellative, with about the same semantic range as ʾelohim (see below). The word can thus be preceded by the article: ha-ʾel, "the [true] God" (e.g., Ps. 18:31, 33, 48; 57:3). Like ʾelohim, ʾel can be employed in reference to an "alien god" (Deut. 32:12; Mal. 2:11) or a "strange god" (Ps. 44:21; 81:10). It can also have the plural form ʾelim, "heavenly beings" (Ex. 15:11). In contrast to the extremely common word ʾelohim, ʾel occurs relatively seldom, except in archaic or archaizing poetry, as in Job and Psalms. But ʾel and, rarely, ʾelohim are used when the term is modified by one or more adjectives, e.g., "a jealous god" (e.g., Ex. 20:5; 34:14), "a god compassionate and gracious" (e.g., Ex. 34:6; Ps. 86:15). Moreover, ʾel, not ʾelohim, is used when the divine is contrasted with the human (Num. 23:19; Isa. 31:3; Ezek. 28:9; Hos. 11:9; Job 25:4). As an element in theophoric names, ʾel, not ʾelohim, is used often as the first element, e.g., Elijah, Elisha, and Elihu, and even more often as the last element, e.g., Israel, Ishmael, and Samuel. Of special interest are the divine names of which El is the first element: ʾEl ʿElyon, ʾEl ʿOlam, ʾEl Shaddai, ʾEl Ro ʾi, and ʾEl Berit.

ʾEl ʿElyon

The Hebrew word ʿelyon is an adjective meaning "higher, upper," e.g., the "upper" pool (Isa. 7:3), the "upper" gate (II Kings 15:35), and "highest," e.g., the "highest" of all the kings of the earth (Ps. 89:28). When used in reference to God, the word can rightly be translated as "Most High." Since in reference to God ʿelyon is never preceded by the article ha- ("the"), it must have been regarded as a proper noun, a name of God. Thus, it can be used as a divine name meaning "the Most High" (e.g.,Page 673  |  Top of Article Deut. 32:8; Isa. 14:14; Ps. 9:3) or in parallelism with YHWH (e.g., Ps. 18:14; 21:8; 83:19), El (Num. 24:16; Ps. 107:11), and Shaddai (Ps. 91:1).

Among the Canaanites, ʾEl and ʿElyon were originally distinct deities. El is attested over 500 times in texts from Ugarit (Ras Shamra) in Northwest Syria from the later second millennium. In a list of gods in an Aramaic treaty of the eighth century B.C.E. from Sefire in Syria we have ʾl w ʿlyn, which has been interpreted by some scholars as "El and Elyon," that is, two distinct gods, and by others as "El, who is Elyon," which would approximate Genesis 14:18–20. *Eusebius , bishop of Caesarea in the fourth century, cites the first-century author Philo of Byblos, who himself cites the "Phoenician Theology" of one Sanchuniathon, to the effect that Elioun was the name of a deified mortal, who became the ancestor of Zeus Demarous. According to Genesis 14:18–20, Melchizedek, king of Salem, was "a priest of God Most High [ʾEl ʿElyon]," and he blessed Abraham by "God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth." Abraham accepted the title "Most High" as merely descriptive of his own God; he swore by "YHWH, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth." Greek inscriptions refer to Zeus Hypsistos, a reflection of Semitic terminology. Whereas for the pagans the term referred to the god who was supreme over the other gods, in Israel it referred to the transcendent nature of the one true God.

ʾEl ʿOlam

According to Genesis 21:33, "Abraham planted a tamarisk at Beer-Sheba, and invoked there the name of YHWH, the everlasting God." The Hebrew for "the Everlasting God" is ʾel ʾolam, literally, "the God of an indefinitely long time." Perhaps it was the title of El as worshiped at the local shrine of Beer-Sheba (cf. El Bethel, "the El of Bethel," in Gen. 35:7). Then Abraham would have accepted this Canaanite term as descriptive of his true God. In any case, the epithet is logical in the context, which concerns a pact meant for all times. The term by which Abraham invoked YHWH at Beer-Sheba is apparently echoed in Isaiah 40:28, where YHWH is called "the Everlasting God [ʾelohei ʾolam], the Creator of the ends of the earth" (cf. Jer. 10:10, melekh ʿolam, "the everlasting King" Isa. 26:4, ẓur ʾolamim, "an everlasting Mountain"). In Deuteronomy 33:27, where "the ancient God" (ʾelohei qedem) parallels "the everlasting arms" (zero ʾot ʾolam), the text is uncertain. Only in the late passage of Daniel 12:7 (probably translated from Aramaic) is the article used with ʾolam: "The man clothed in linen… swore by Him that liveth for ever (be-ḥei ha-ʿolam)."

ʾEl Shaddai

According to the literary source of the Pentateuch that the critics call the "Priestly Document," YHWH "appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai" (Ex. 6:3). The traditional English rendering of the obscure Hebrew term ʾEl Shaddai as "God Almighty" goes back to ancient times. The Septuagint renders Shaddai as Pantokrator, "All-powerful" this is followed by the Vulgate's Omnipotens, "Omnipotent." Apparently, this rendering is based on an ancient rabbinic interpretation, sha, "who," and dai, "enough," i.e., "He who is self-sufficient" (e.g., Ḥag. 12a); thus, the Jewish translators Aquila and Symmachus in the early centuries C.E. translated shaddai by Greek hikanos, "sufficient, able." But this definition can hardly be taken as the true etymology of the term. No fully satisfactory explanation of it has yet been accepted by all scholars. The term is often explained as a cognate of the Akkadian word šadū, "mountain," either in the sense that ʾEl Shaddai would mean "God the Mountain" (cf. ẓur, "Mountain," an epithet of God, e.g., Deut. 32:4, 30, 37); the abode of "ʾEl of Heaven," or ʾEl Shaddai could mean "ʾEl-of-the-Mountain," i.e., of the cosmic mountain, the abode of "ʾEl. of Heaven." The ending -ai of shaddai would be adjectival, as in Ugaritic ʾrṣy (to be vocalized ʾarṣai), "She of the Earth," the name of one of the three daughters of the Ugaritic ʾEl. No Ugaritic equivalent of ʾEl Shaddai has yet been found. Deities known as šdyn are mentioned in the ninth-eighth century *Balaam text unearthed at Deir Alla (probably biblical Sukkoth) in Jordan. In the Bible the full name, ʾEl Shaddai, is used only in connection with Abraham (Gen. 17:1), Isaac (Gen. 28:3), and Jacob (Gen. 35:11; 43:14; 48:3). The word Shaddai alone occurs as God's name in the ancient oracles of Balaam (Num. 24:4, 16), in poetic passages (Isa. 13:6; Ezek. 1:24; Joel 1:15; Ps. 68:15; 91:1; and 31 times in Job), and even in archaizing prose (Ruth 1:20–21). Moreover, Shaddai is an element in Israelite names with parallels in ancient sources, such as Ammishaddai ("My Kinsman is Shaddai" Num. 1:12) and Zurishaddai ("My Mountain is Shaddai" Num. 1:6).

ʾEl Roʾi

The divine name ʾEl Ro ʾi occurs in Genesis 16:13. After Hagar was driven away by Sarai (Sarah) and fled into the western Negev, at a certain spring or well she had a vision of God, "and she called YHWH who spoke to her, 'You are ʾEl Ro ʾi.'" The meaning of the word "Roʾi" in this context is obscure. By itself it can be either a noun, "appearance" (I Sam. 16:12), "spectacle" (Nah. 3:6), or a participle with a suffix of the first person singular, "seeing me," i.e., who sees me (Job 7:8). Therefore, ʾEl Ro ʾi could mean either "the God of Vision" (who showed Himself to me) or "the God who sees me." The explanation of the divine name that is given in the second half of the same verse (Gen. 16:13b) is equally obscure. As the Hebrew text now stands, it is usually rendered as "She meant, 'Have I not gone on seeing after He saw me [aharei ro ʾi]?'" (JPS, 1962), or, "She meant, 'Did I not go on seeing here [halom] after He had seen me?'" (E.A. Speiser, Genesis (1964, 117). In the following verse (16:14) it isstated: "Therefore the well was called Be ʾer-Laḥai-Roʾi." This name is explained in a footnote as "Apparently, 'The Well of the Living One Who sees me'" (JPS). However, on the basis of the name of the well, E.A. Speiser (op. cit., p. 119) would emend the unvocalized Hebrew text of Genesis 16:13, hgm hlm rʾyty ʾḥry rʾy, to read hgm ʾlhm rʾyty wʾḥy, "Did I really see God, yet remain alive?" The name of the well he would then take to mean, "Well of living sight." Since the well was in the region occupied by the Ishmaelites (and Hagar was the motherPage 674  |  Top of Article of Ishmael), the divine name, ʾEl Ro ʾi, may have been proper to the Ishmaelites rather than to the Israelites.

ʾEl Berit

The divine name ʾEl Berit ("God of the Covenant") occurs only in Judges 9:46, where mention is made of "the house [i.e., temple] of ʾEl Berit" at Shechem. This is certainly the same sanctuary that is called "the house [i.e., temple] of Ba ʾal Berit" in 9:4. From the treasury of the temple of Baal-Berith the citizens of Shechem gave 70 silver shekels to Abimelech, the son of Jerubbaal (another name of Gideon) to aid him in his fight for the sole kingship of Shechem against the other sons of Jerubbaal (ibid.). A few years later, the rebellious citizens of Shechem were burned to death by Abimelech in the temple of El-Berith where they had taken refuge (9:46–49).

The Deuteronomist editor of the Book of Judges regarded Baal-Berith as a pagan god. But the case is not quite that simple. First of all, in early Israel the word ba ʾal, meaning "owner, master, lord," was often regarded more or less as a synonym of ʾadon, "lord" (see below under "ʾAdonai"), and so it could be used legitimately as a title of YHWH. Among the sons of King Saul, who was certainly not a worshiper of a pagan god, were those who bore the names of Merib-Baal, "the Lord contends" (?), and Eshbaal (originally, ʾish-ba ʾal), "man of the Lord," I Chron. 8:33, 34; 9:39, 40; and even one of King David's sons was called Beeliada (originally ba ʾal-yada ʿ), "the Lord knows" (I Chron. 14:7), who is called Eliada (ʾel-yada ʿ), "God knows," in II Samuel 5:16. Only after the time of Solomon was the word "Baal" recognized in Israel as the specific title of the Canaanite storm-god Hadad, and thereafter avoided by true Israelites as a title for YHWH. (Scribal tradition later changed the ba ʾal in older Israelite names to boshet ("shame") in the Books of Samuel and Kings; see *Euphemism and Dysphemism.) It is likewise uncertain what the berit ("covenant") refers to in the words Baal-Berith or El-Berith. Shechem was regarded as a sacred site by Abraham and Jacob, each of whom erected an altar there (Gen. 12:6–7; 33:19–20). In addition, Jacob's acquisition of land at Shechem (Gen. 33:19; cf. 48:22) and the connubium between the sons of Jacob and the sons of Hamor (as the Shechemites were then called) imply certain covenant agreements. Moreover, the strange name, "sons of Hamor" (benei hamor, "sons of the ass"), who is said to be the "father of Shechem" (Gen. 34:6), seems to have something to do with covenant making. From the *El-Amarna Letters (c. 1400 B.C.E.) it is known that there was a strong Hurrian element in Shechem. The Septuagint is therefore probably correct in reading hḥry ("the Horite," i.e., the Hurrian) instead of hḥwy ("the Hivite") of the Masoretic Text in describing the ethnic origin of "Shechem" (Gen. 34:2); moreover, the uncircumcised Shechemites (Gen. 34:14, 24) were most likely not Semitic Canaanites (see E.A. Speiser, op. cit., 267). It is also known that the slaughtering of an ass played a role among the Hurrians in the making of a covenant. Thus, Baal-Berith or El-Berith may have been regarded by the Shechemites as the divine protector of covenants.

Did the early Israelites perhaps regard El-Berith as the God of the covenant made between YHWH and Israel? It is a noteworthy fact that Joshua made a covenant with all Israel precisely at Shechem, the city sacred to El-Berith, "the God of the Covenant" (Josh. 8:30–35; 24:1–28). Therefore, even though the late Deuteronomist editor of the Book of Judges considered Baal-Berith one of the pagan Canaanite Ba ʾalim, this term may well have been regarded in early Israel as one of the titles of YHWH. A god ilbrt, found in a second millennium hymn, has been interpreted variously as El-berith and as Ilabrat, an old Semitic deity.

ʾELOAH, ʾElohim

The word ʾeloah "God" and its plural, ʾelohim, is apparently alengthened form of ʾEl (cf. Aramaic ʾelah, Arabic ʾilāh). The singular ʾeloah is of relatively rare occurrence in the Bible outside of Job, where it is found about 40 times. It is very seldomused in reference to a foreign god and then only in a late period (Dan. 1137ff.; II Chron. 32:15). In all other cases it refers to the God of Israel (e.g., Deut. 32:15; Ps. 50:22; 139:19; Prov. 30:5; Job 3:4, 23). The plural form ʾelohim is used not only of pagan "gods" (e.g., Ex. 12:12; 18:11; 20:3), but also of an individual pagan "god" (Judg. 11:24; II Kings 1:2ff.) and even of a "goddess" (I Kings 11:5). In reference to Israel's "god" it is used extremely often – more than 2,000 times – and often with the article, ha-ʾelohim, "the [true] god." Occasionally, the plural form ʾelohim, even when used of the god of Israel, is construed with a plural verb or adjective (e.g., Gen. 20:13; 35:7; Ex. 32:4, 8; II Sam. 7:23; Ps. 58:12), especially in the expression ʾelohim ḥayyim, "the living God." In the vast majority of cases, however, the plural form is treated as if it were a noun in the singular. The odd fact that Hebrew uses a plural noun to designate the god of Israel has been explained in various ways. Some scholars take it as a plural that expresses an abstract idea (e.g., zekunim, "old age" ne ʾurim, "time of youth"), so that ʾElohim would really mean "the Divinity." More likely, however, it came from general Canaanite usage. In the el-Amarna Letters Pharaoh is often addressed as "my gods [īlāni ʾya] the sun-god." In the ancient Near East of the second half of the second millennium B.C.E. there was a certain trend toward quasi-monotheism, and any god could be given the attributes of any other god, so that an individual god could be addressed as ʾelohai, "my gods," "my pantheon," or ʾadonai, "my lords." The early Israelites felt no inconsistency in referring to their god in these terms. The word ʾelohim is employed also to describe someone or something as godlike, preternatural, or extraordinarily great, e.g., the ghost of Samuel (I Sam. 28:13; cf. Isa. 8:19 "spirits"), the house of David (Zech. 12:8), and Rachel's contest with her sister (Gen. 30:8).


The Hebrew word ʾadon is correctly rendered in English as "lord." In the Bible it is often used in reference to any human being who had authority, such as the ruler of a country (Gen. 42:30), the master of a slave (Gen. 24:96), and the husband ofPage 675  |  Top of Article a wife (Gen. 18:12). In formal polite style a man, not necessarily a superior, was addressed as "my lord" (ʾadoni; e.g., Gen. 23:6, 15; 24:18); and several men could be addressed as "my lords" (ʾadonai; e.g., Gen. 19:2). Since God is "Lord [ʾadon] of all the earth" (Josh. 3:11), He is addressed and spoken of as "my Lord" – in Hebrew, ʾAdonai (literally, "my Lords," in the plural in keeping with the plural form, ʾElohim, and always with the "pausal" form of a long ā at the end). Originally, "ʾadonai," especially in the combined form "ʾadonai YHWH" (e.g., Gen. 15:2, 8; Deut. 3:24; 9:26), was no doubt understood as "my Lord." But later, "ʾAdonai" was taken to be a name of God, the "Lord."


The personal name of the God of Israel is written in the Hebrew Bible with the four consonants YHWH and is referred to as the "Tetragrammaton." At least until the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E. this name was regularly pronounced with its proper vowels, as is clear from the *Lachish Letters, written shortly before that date. But at least by the third century B.C.E. the pronunciation of the name YHWH was avoided, and Adonai, "the Lord," was substituted for it, as evidenced by the use of the Greek word Kyrios, "Lord," for YHWH in the Septuagint, the translation of the Hebrew Scriptures that was begun by Greek-speaking Jews in that century. Where the combined form ʾAdonai YHWH occurs in the Bible, this was read as ʾAdonai ʾElohim, "Lord God." In the early Middle Ages, when the consonantal text of the Bible was supplied with vowel points to facilitate its correct traditional reading, the vowel points for ʾAdonai with one variation – a sheva with the initial yod of YHWH instead of the ḥataf-pataḥ under the aleph of ʾAdonai – were used for YHWH, thus producing the form YeHoWaH. When Christian scholars of Europe first began to study Hebrew, they did not understand what this really meant, and they introduced the hybrid name "Jehovah." In order to avoid pronouncing even the sacred name ʾAdonaifor YHWH, the custom was later introduced of saying simply in Hebrew ha-Shem (or Aramaic Shemā ʾ, "the Name") even in such an expression as "Blessed be he that cometh in the name of YHWH" (Ps. 118:26). The avoidance of pronouncing the name YHWH is generally ascribed to a sense of reverence. More precisely, it was caused by a misunderstanding of the Third Commandment (Ex. 20:7; Deut. 5:11) as meaning "Thou shalt not take the name of YHWH thy God in vain," whereas it really means either "You shall not swear falsely by the name of YHWH your God" (JPS) or more likely, "Do not speak the name of YHWH your god, to that which is false," i.e., do not identify YHWH with any other god.

The true pronunciation of the name YHWH was never lost. Several early Greek writers of the Christian Church testify that the name was pronounced "Yahweh." This is confirmed, at least for the vowel of the first syllable of the name, by the shorter form Yah, which is sometimes used in poetry (e.g., Ex. 15:2) and the -yahu or -yah that serves as the final syllable in very many Hebrew names. In the opinion of manyscholars, YHWH is a verbal form of the root hwh, which is an older variant of the root hyh "to be." The vowel of the first syllable shows that the verb is used in the form of a future-present causative hiph ʾil, and must therefore mean "He causes to be, He brings into existence." The explanation of the name as given in Exodus 3:14, Eheyeh-Asher-Eheyeh, "I-Am-Who-I-Am," offers a folk etymology, common in biblical explanation of names, rather than a strictly scientific one. Like many other Hebrew names in the Bible, the name Yahweh is no doubt a shortened form of what was originally a longer name. It has been suggested that the original, full form of the name was something like Yahweh-Asher-Yihweh, "He brings into existence whatever exists" or Yahweh Ẓevaʾot (I Sam. 1:3, 11), which really means "He brings the hosts [of heaven – or of Israel?] into existence." "The Lord of Hosts," the traditional translation of the latter name, is doubtful.

According to the documentary hypothesis, the literary sources in the Pentateuch known as the Elohist and the Priestly Document never use the name Yahweh for God until it is revealed to Moses (Ex. 3:13; 6:2–3); but the Yahwist source uses it from Genesis 2:4 on and puts the name in Eve's declaration, "I along with Yahweh have made a man," thus implying that it was known to the first human generation (Gen. 4:1; cf. 4:26). The apparent purpose of Exodus 6:2–3 is to glorify Moses at the expense of the patriarchal traditions.

Divine Epithets

Besides the above-mentioned divine names, the god of Israel is also given several epithets or appellatives that are descriptive of His nature. Yahweh shares several of these epithets with other ancient divinities. Only a few of these can be mentioned here.

Israel's god is "Creator of heaven and earth" (Gen. 14:19, 22). He is also called "the Creator of Israel (Isa. 43:15 – unless this is to be emended to "the Mighty One of Israel; cf. Isa. 1:24); for His creative activity was regarded, not only as His initial bringing of the world into existence, but also as His continuous governing of the world (Isa. 29:16; 45:9; 64:7; Jer. 27:5; 31:35–36). Like some of his Canaanite and Phoenician contemporaries He is called "the Holy One" (Isa. 40:25; Hab. 3:3); Yahweh is specifically, "the Holy One of Israel" (e.g., Isa. 1:4; 5:19, 24). In common with numerous Mesopotamian gods, Yahweh is called "Shepherd." He cares for his flock as loving care for "the Shepherd of Israel" (Ps. 80:2; cf. 28:9; Hos. 4:16). Another common title that YHWH shares with Mesopotamian gods is "the Mountain" (e.g., Deut. 32:4, 18, 31, 37; I Sam. 2:2; II Sam. 22:32 (= Ps. 18:32); Isa. 44:8), thus emphasizing Yahweh's enduring power and the place where one finds refuge. The God of Israel is very often spoken of or addressed as "King" or "King of Israel," thus describing His sovereign rule over His Chosen People, to give them peace, happiness, and salvation (e.g., Isa. 41:2; 44:6; 52:7). The so-called "Enthronement Psalms of YHWH" (Ps. 47; 93; 96–99) emphasize the Lord's kingship over Israel. Prophetic oracles are proclaimed as pronouncements made by His Royal Majesty (Jer. 46:18; 48:15;Page 676  |  Top of Article 51:57). Although before the time of Saul, Israel generally rejected the idea of human kingship as an encroachment on the Lord's sole rule over Israel (I Sam. 8:7; 12:12), at a later period the Chronicler did not hesitate to speak of the Davidic kings as the Lord's representatives seated on the royal "throne of YHWH" (e.g., I Chron. 17:14; 28:5; 29:23). Not only the nation, but also individual Israelites addressed the Lord as "King" (Ps. 5:3; 44:5; 84:4). It is disputed whether the term "King" was used of YHWH before the monarchical period in Israel. This title for YHWH is rare in the Pentateuch (Ex. 15:18; Num. 23:21; Deut. 33:5). Gideon, in refusing to "rule over" Israel, does not speak of YHWH as the king of Israel but says, "It is YHWH who is to rule over you" (Judg. 8:22–23). The term "King" is not mentioned in this passage. The phrase "Ancient of days," which is employed as an epithet of God in modern times, is biblical in origin (Dan. 7:9, 13, 22). A careful reading of these passages shows that "Ancient of Days" was yet an epithet of Yahweh. For the use of the names of God as a basis for the documentary hypothesis see *Bible , cols. 906–7.


In the Apocrypha, as in the Hebrew Bible, the most common names are "God" (Gr. Theos; in Ben Sira usually ʾElohim but sometimes ʾEl), "Lord" (Gr. Kyrios, which no doubt generally stands for ʾAdonai; but Ben Sira commonly has YHWH, represented by three yods in the medieval mss.), "the Most High" (Gr. ho Hypsistos, probably for Heb. ʾElyon, but perhaps at times for Ha-Gavoha as in the Talmud), "the Lord Almighty" (Gr. Kyrios Pantokrator for Heb. YHWH Ẓevaʾot) or simply "the Almighty" (Gr. ho Pantokratōr for Heb. Ẓevaʾot alone), "the Eternal One" (Gr. ho Aionios (I Bar. 4:20, 22, 24, etc.) for Heb. ʾEl ʾOlam), etc.

Among the terms used for God that are more or less peculiar to the Apocrypha are "the God of Truth" (I Esd. 4:40); "the Living God of Majesty" (Add. Esth. 16:16; cf. Talmudic Heb. Ha-Gevurah); "King of Gods and Ruler of every power" (Add. Esth. 14:12); "Sovereign Lord" (Lat. Dominator Dominus; IV Ezra 6:11); "Creator of all" (Heb. Yoẓer ha-Kol; Ecclus. 24:8; 51:12); and such terms as "the Praiseworthy God" (El ha-Tishbaḥot), "Guardian of Israel" (Shomer Yisrael), "Shield of Abraham" (Magen Avraham), "Rock of Isaac" (Ẓur Yiẓḥaq), and "King over the king of kings" (Melekh Malkheiha-Melakhim), which are found in that passage of Ben Sira, inserted after 51:12 in the Greek, that has been preserved only in Hebrew.

An interesting passage occurs in IV Ezra 7:62 (132)–70 (140), where, based on Exodus 34:6–7, the author of this book lists seven names of the Most High: "I know that the Most High is called 'the Compassionate One,' because He has compassion on those who have not yet come into the world; and 'the Merciful One,' because He has mercy on those who repent and live by His law; and 'the Patient One,' because He is patient toward those who have sinned, since they are His creatures; and 'the Bountiful One,' because He would rather give than take away; and 'the One Rich in Forgiveness,' because again and again He forgives sinners, past, present, and to come, since without His continued forgiveness there would be no hope of life for the world and its inhabitants; and 'the Generous One,' because without His generosity in releasing sinners from their sins not one ten-thousandth part of mankind could have life; and 'the Judge,' because if He did not grant pardon to those who have been created by His word by blotting out their countless offenses there would probably be only a very few left of the entire human race."

The earliest occurrences (except for Dan. 4:23: "It is Heaven that rules") of the substitution of the word "Heaven" (God's abode) for "God" (Himself) are found in the Apocrypha: "In the sight of Heaven" (I Macc. 3:18), "Let us cry to Heaven" (I Macc. 4:10), "They were singing hymns and glorifying Heaven" (I Macc. 4:24), "All the people… adored and praised Heaven" (I Macc. 4:55), "With the help of Heaven" (I Macc. 12:15), and "From Heaven I received these [sons]" (II Macc. 7:11). In the Christian Gospels this usage is especially common in the Judeo-Christian Gospel of Matthew, where, e.g., "the kingdom of Heaven" corresponds to "the kingdom of God" in the parallel passages of Mark and Luke (Matt. 3:2 = Mark 1:15; Matt. 5:3 = Luke 6:20; et al.), but also in Luke 15:18, 21: "I have sinned against Heaven." This usage still persists in such modern English expressions as "Heaven help us!"

[Louis F. Hartman /

S. David Sperling (2nd ed.)]

In the Talmud

The subject of the names of God in the Talmud must be considered under two heads, the prohibition of using the biblical divine names, and the additional names evolved by the rabbis.

The Prohibition of Use of the Names of God

The prohibition applies both to the pronunciation of the name of God and its committal to writing, apart from its use in sacred writings. The prohibition against the pronunciation of the name of God applies only to the Tetragrammaton, which could be pronounced by the high priest only once a year on the Day of Atonement in the Holy of Holies (cf. Mishnah Yoma 6:2), and in the Temple by the priests when they recited the Priestly Blessing (Sot. 7:6; see also Ch. Albeck (ed.), Seder Nashim (1954), 387). As the Talmud expresses it: "Not as I am written am I pronounced. I am written yod he vav he, and I am pronounced alef dalet" (nun yod, i.e., ʾAdonai; Kid. 71a). The prohibition of committing the names of God to secular writing belongs to a different category. Basing themselves on Deuteronomy 12:4, the Sifrei (ad loc.) and the Talmud (Shev. 35a) lay it down that it is forbidden to erase the name of God from a written document, and since any paper upon which that name appears might be discarded and thus "erased," it is forbidden to write the name explicitly. The Talmud gives an interesting historical note with regard to one aspect of this. Among the decrees of the Syrians during the persecutions of *Antiochus Epiphanes was one forbidding the mention of the name of God. When the *Hasmoneans gained the victory theyPage 677  |  Top of Article not only naturally repealed the decree, but demonstratively ordained that the divine name be entered even in monetary bonds, the opening formula being "In such and such a year of Johanan, high priest to the Most High God." The rabbis, however, forbade this practice since "tomorrow a man will pay his debt and the bond (with the name of God) will be discarded on a dunghill" the day of the prohibition was actually made an annual festival (RH 18b).

It is, however, specifically stated that this prohibition refers only to seven biblical names of God. They are ʾEl, ʾElohim (also with suffixes), "I am that I am" (Ex. 3:14), ʾAdonai, the Tetragrammaton, Shaddai, and Ẓeva'ot (R. Yose disagrees with this last, Shev. 35a–b). The passage states explicitly that all other names and descriptions of God by attributes may be written freely. Despite this, it became the accepted custom among Orthodox Jews to use variations of most of those names in speech, particularly ʾElokim for ʾElohim, and Ha-Shem ("the Name" and, for reasons of assonance, ʾAdoshem) for Adonai. The adoption of Ha-Shem is probably due to a misunderstanding of a passage in the liturgy of the Day of Atonement, the Avodah. It includes the formula of the confession of the high priest on that day. Since on that occasion he uttered the Ineffable Name, the text has "Oh, Ha-Shem, I have sinned," etc. The meaning is probably "O [here he mentioned the Ineffable Name] I have sinned," and from this developed the custom of using Ha-Shem for ʾAdonai, which is in itself a substitute for the Tetragrammaton (see also Allon , Mehkarim, 1 (1957), 194ff.; S. Lieberman, Tosefta ki-Feshutah (Mo ʾed), 4 (1962), 755).

*Shabbetai b. Meir ha-Kohen (first half 17th century) states emphatically that the prohibition of erasure of the divine name applies only to the names in Hebrew but not the vernacular (Siftei Kohen to Sh. Ar., YD 179:8; cf. Pitḥei Teshuvah to YD 276:9), and this is repeated as late as the 19th century by R. Akiva Eger (novellae, ad loc.). Jehiel Michael Epstein, however, in his Arukh ha-Shulhan (ḤM 27:3) inveighs vehemently against the practice of writing the Divine Name even in vernacular in correspondence, calling it an "exceedingly grave offense." As a result the custom has become widespread among extremely particular Jews not to write the word God or any other name of God, even in the vernacular, in full.

Rabbinical Names of God

The rabbis evolved a number of additional names of God. All of them, without exception, are references to His attributes, but curiously enough they are not included in the list of the permitted names enumerated in the passage in Shevu'ot: "the Great, the Mighty, the Revered, the Majestic," etc. (35a–b). The most common is Ha-Kadosh barukh Hu ("the Holy One, blessed be He" in Aramaic, Kudsha berikh Hu). It is an abbreviation of "the Supreme King of kings, the Holy One blessed be He." The full formula is found in the Mishnah (e.g., Sanh. 4:5; Avot 3:1), but more often the abbreviation is found (e.g., Ned. 3:11; Sot. 5:5; Avot 3:2; 5:4; and Uk. 3:12); it is by far the most common appellation of God in the Midrash. Another name is Ribbono shel Olam ("Sovereign of the Universe"), normally used as an introduction to a supplication, as in the prayer of *Onias ha-Me'aggel for rain (Ta'an. 3:8). One of the most interesting names is Ha-Makom (lit. "the place," i.e., the Omnipresent; Av. Zar. 40b; Nid. 49b; Ber. 16b), and it is explained in the Midrash: "R. Huna in the name of R. Ammi said, 'Why do we use a circumlocution for the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, and call him Makom? Because He is the place of His world, but this world is not His [only] place'"(Gen. R. 68:49). The name Ha-Raḥaman ("the All-Merciful") is commonly used in the liturgy, particularly in the *Grace after Meals. In the Talmud, the Aramaic form, Raḥmana, is also found (Git. 17a; Ket. 45a), as it is in several prayers from the geonic period. So also Shamayim ("heaven") as in Yirat Shamayim ("Fear of God" Ber. 16b), however Avinu she-ba-Shamayim ("Our Father in Heaven" Yoma 8:9) is also used. According to the Talmud (Shab. 10b) Shalom ("Peace") is also one of the names of God, as is the word Ani ("I") in Mishnah Sukkah 4:5, and in Hillel's statement (Suk. 53a) "If Ani is here, all is here," it is given the same connotation.

Reference is made to a "Name of 12 letters" and a "Name of 42 letters" (Ked. 71a). Of the former, it is stated that "it used to be entrusted to everyone, but when unruly men increased, it was confided only to the pious of the priesthood and they used to pronounce it indistinctly ("swallowed it") while their priestly brethren were chanting the benediction." R. Tarfon, who was a kohen, states that he once heard the high priest thus muttering it. Similarly the 42-lettered Name is entrusted only to those of exceptionally high moral character. Rashi (ad loc.) states that these names have been lost. According to the kabbalists the prayer Anna be-Kho'aḥ, found in the prayer book, and consisting of 42 words, is connected with this latter name. Finally it should be mentioned that to the rabbis it is definite that the Tetragrammaton denotes God in His attribute of mercy and ʾElohim (which in fact means a "judge" (cf. Ex. 22:8, 27)) denotes Him in His attribute of justice.

[Louis Isaac Rabinowitz]

In Kabbalah

The names of God play different roles in the kabbalistic literature. According to a magical tradition adopted by *Naḥ-manides , there is a reading of the Torah as a continuum of divine names. Though he asserted that this reading is lost, other kabbalists, especially the ecstatic ones, adopted this theory in order to interpret the biblical verses as combinations of divine names. Following some discussions found in *Ḥasidei Ashkenaz , in this kabbalistic school, the divine names, the Tetragrammaton, and the name of 72 letters, serve as a vital part of the mystical technique. According to the theosophical-theurgical kabbalists, the various divine names point to each of the divine powers, or sefirot, and they serve both as symbols for those powers and instruments to unify them. In a few cases, kabbalists assume that in the Bible there is no name that points to the highest divine realm. In practical Kabbalah,Page 678  |  Top of Article recipes based on divine names, imagined to achieve a variety of magical acts, abound.

[Moshe Idel (2nd ed.)]

In Medieval Jewish Philosophy

The multiple names of God in the Bible posed a special problem for medieval Jewish philosophers. Concerned to defend and explicate God's absolute unity, they found it necessary to treat the divine names in a way that eliminates any suggestion of plurality in God's being. They either reduced the multiple names to a single common meaning or showed that, among the numerous names, one alone was the proper and exclusive name of God. *Saadiah Gaon held that the two most widely used scriptural names, YHWH and ʾElohim, have a single meaning. This is in marked contrast to the above-mentioned teaching that one name stands for God's attribute of mercy and the other for His attribute of justice.

*Judah Halevi , Abraham *Ibn Daud , *Maimonides , and Joseph *Albo all emphasized the Tetragrammaton as the only proper name of God. Judah Halevi held that all the other names "are predicates and attributive descriptions, derived from the way His creatures are affected by His decrees and measures" (Kuzari, 2:2; 4:1–3).

Maimonides declared that, except for YHWH, "All the names of God that are to be found in any of the books derive from actions" (Guide of the Perplexed, 1:61–64), but only the Tetragrammaton "gives a clear and unequivocal indication of His essence," a view which is shared by Albo (Sefer ha-Ikkarim, 2:28). For Halevi the meaning of YHWH is hidden, and for Ibn Daud it refers to God as master of the universe. The philosophers identified God as creator, first cause, first mover, first being, or necessary existence, but none of these technical philosophic terms can be considered names of God.

In Modern Jewish Philosophy

From Moses *Mendelssohn through Martin *Buber , modern Jewish philosophy exhibits two main tendencies with respect to the names of God. One line, moving from Mendelssohn through such thinkers as Solomon *Formstecher , Samuel *Hirsh , Nachman *Krochmal , and Hermann *Cohen , treats the names of God as primarily metaphysical. In his German translation of the Bible, Mendelssohn renders YHWH as "the Eternal"; Formstecher speaks of God as the "World-Soul" and Krochmal conceives Him as "Absolute Spirit." In his extensive discussion of the traditional divine names, Cohen interprets all of them as pointing to God's unity and His uniqueness. YHWH refers to God as absolute Being; Ehyeh-asher-ehyeh (Ex. 3:14) relates to His eternal and unchanging nature; and *Shekhinah , translated by Cohen as "Absolute Rest," refers to the unchanging divine nature.

In contrast, Franz *Rosenzweig and Martin Buber view the names as primarily religious and personalistic. In their translation of the Bible, they render YHWH by the personal pronouns YOU or HE. Ehyeh names the God who is always present to man and constantly participates in human concerns. Thus, Buber interprets Exodus 3:14 as saying, "I again and again stand by those whom I befriend; and I would have you know indeed that I befriend you." They consider the philosophic interpretation of the names as seriously inadequate in its failure to grasp the personal-religious reality which is fundamental to Judaism. Turning in a radically different direction, Mordecai *Kaplan developed a purely naturalistic conception of God. He refers to Him as "The Power that makes for salvation" and interprets this as "The Power that makes for the fulfillment of all valid ideals."

[Marvin Fox]


IN THE BIBLE: A.E. Murtonen, Philological and Literary Treatise on Old Testament Divine Names (1952); M. Pope, El in Ugaritic Texts (1955); Albright, in: JBL, 54 (1935), 173–93; 67 (1948), 377–81; Freedman, ibid., 79 (1960), 151–6; Abba, ibid., 80 (1961), 320–8; Bailey, ibid., 87 (1968), 434–8; Cohon, in: HUCA, 23 (1950–51), 579–604; Mowinckel, ibid., 32 (1961), 121–33; Cross, in: HTR, 55 (1962), 225–9; Maclaurin, in: VT, 12 (1962), 439–63; Rendtorff, in: ZAW, 78 (1966), 277–92; Hyatt, in: JBL, 86 (1967), 369–77; A. Alt, Der Gott der Väter (1929); Finkelstein, in: Conservative Judaism, 23 (1969), 25–36. IN THE TALMUD: S. Esh, Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu: Der Heilige Er sei gepriesen (1957); A. Marmorstein, The Old Rabbinic Doctrine of God: The Names and Attributes of God (19682), 17–145. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: IN THE BIBLE: K. Tallqvist, Akkadische Gőtterepitheta (1974); E. Urbach, The Sages … (1987); L. Jacobs, in: Encyclopedia of Religion (20042), 3547–552; J. Neusner, ibid., 7583–90; B. Becking, in: DDD, 44–55; ibid., 292–93; W. Herrmann, ibid., 274–80; W. Rőllig, ibid., 28-–81; D. Pardee, ibid., 285–88; A. de Pury, ibid., 288–92; E. Elnes and P. Miller, ibid., 293–99; E.A. Knauf, ibid., 749–53; K. van der Toorn, ibid., 910–19; S. David Sperling, in: IDBSUP, 608–9; idem, Encyclopedia of Religion (20042), 3537–43. IN KABBALAH: M. Idel, "Allegory and Divine Names in Ecstatic Kabbalah," in: J. Whitman (ed.), Interpretation and Allegory, Antiquity to the Modern World (2000), 317–47.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2587507449